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London tower fire: Concerns over cladding stretch back years

A man died in Irvine, North Ayrshire, in 1999 when a blaze tore through a 14-storey building.

Risks: Grenfell Tower not the first fire to be linked to cladding.
Risks: Grenfell Tower not the first fire to be linked to cladding. ITV News/PA/John Quinn

The huge blaze that destroyed a 24-storey tower block of flats in London has reopened a long running debate on the fire risk of cladding.

Residents who escaped the inferno at Grenfell Tower, which has left at least 17 people dead, spoke of the external cladding on the building going "up like a matchstick".

Cladding is a material usually attached directly to the exterior of a building to function as a kind of outer wall for the purposes of insulation and preventing condensation or excessive air leakage.

It is often used for high rise buildings to make them more energy efficient and in some cases to improve the way they look from the outside.

Following Tuesday night's blaze, Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered a full public inquiry while in Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced a ministerial group review of regulations.

London fire commissioner Dany Cotton said earlier on Wednesday: "There will be an investigation but at this stage I do not want to speculate about the cause of the fire or what has caused it to spread in the way that it did."

Concerns over cladding's flammability previously resulted in a parliamentary inquiry at Westminster in 2000, following a fatal fire in Ayrshire the year before.

Irvine, 1999

Garnock Court: Tower block in Ayrshire 'went up like a match'.
Garnock Court: Tower block in Ayrshire 'went up like a match'. PA

On June 11, 1999, a fire ripped through nine floors of the 14-storey tower block at Garnock Court in Irvine, North Ayrshire.

The blaze, which started on the fifth floor and engulfed the next eight floors in a matter of minutes, claimed the life of a disabled man and injured five others.

Firefighters had to use a turntable ladder to reach four adults and a 15-month-old child stranded in the high rise.

One local resident, Angela Blakely, told STV News at the time that yellow cladding on the corners of the building was behind the speed with which the fire spread, saying it took "five minutes".

"These flats have been up for 32 years and they have a lifespan of 30 years - they should be brought down," she added.

Another witness said the building "went up like a match". It took 60 firefighters to bring the blaze under control.

The fatal fire roused politicians to action.

Parliamentary inquiry, 2000

Inquiry: 'All reasonable steps' should be taken on cladding risks.
Inquiry: 'All reasonable steps' should be taken on cladding risks.

The Irvine blaze led Westminster's environment, transport and regional affairs committee to carry out an inquiry in 2000.

The committee looked into the potential risk of fire spread in buildings through external cladding systems, calling 14 witnesses.

Its final report concluded: "We do not believe it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks.

"We believe that all external cladding systems should be required either to be entirely non-combustible or to be proven through full-scale testing not to pose an unacceptable level of risk in terms of fire spread."

The committee added: "There have been few recorded incidents of serious fire spread involving external cladding and, although in our view any loss of life in incidents such as these should be prevented if at all possible, neither have there been many deaths."

It also said the evidence the committee received during the inquiry did "not suggest that the majority of the external cladding systems currently in use in the UK pose a serious threat to life or property in the event of fire".

'We do not believe it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks.'
Westminster report into the fire risk of cladding, 2000

Melbourne, 2014

Melbourne: Lacrosse building used similar cladding to Grenfell.
Melbourne: Lacrosse building used similar cladding to Grenfell. Youtube/Jayden

Attention has also been drawn to the fire risk of cladding in other parts of the world, with incidents in Dubai, Moscow, Beijing and Shanghai.

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower blaze, some have noticed particular similarities with a fire that took place in Melbourne, Australia, almost three years ago.

On November 25, 2014, the Lacrosse building in the city's docklands went up in flames after a cigarette caught fire on an eighth-floor balcony and then quickly spread vertically up the building.

The cladding material was an aluminium composite - the same type of cladding covering Grenfell Tower.

A report by the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) said the first fire crews on the scene saw the blaze had already swept up the external walls and balconies over approximately six levels.

"Only six minutes later, crews reported back that fire had reached the roof of the building above the 21st floor," it said.

The report added: "The extremely vertical nature of the burn patterns to the exterior face of the wall suggest that the Alucobest aluminium cladding, along with the foam lagging and the PVC pipe of the building wall, contributed to the fire load and the rapid spread of the fire up the vertical face of the building to the floors and balcony areas located above.

"Had the external wall cladding been of a non-combustible type, the likelihood of fire spread beyond the level of ignition would have been greatly reduced."

The Lacrosse blaze led Australia's construction industry watchdog to demand an audit of hundreds of buildings across the state of Victoria.

Recent incidents in Glasgow

Charles Street: Witness said cladding 'fuelled fire'.
Charles Street: Witness said cladding 'fuelled fire'. John Quinn

On May 24, 2015, a fire ripped through several floors of a high rise on Charles Street in Springburn, Glasgow.

Around 40 firefighters were sent to the scene and took more than three hours to bring the blaze under control.

Three residents were treated for minor injuries.

Witness John Quinn told the Daily Record at the time: "This is the worst fire I've seen in multi-storey and I think the cladding on the building is actually fuelling it.

"The fire seemed catch the cladding and drip down to the flats below. It became more ferocious as it hit the cladding."

On September 24, 2014, residents in the city's formerly iconic Red Road flats- now demolished - were evacuated after a fire was discovered in the external cladding of the 30-storey building in Petershill.

https://stv.tv/news/west-central/293349-firefighters-were-called-to-a-blaze-in-glasgows-red-road-flats/ | default

Lessons to be learned

Grenfell Tower: Review of regulations announced in Scotland.
Grenfell Tower: Review of regulations announced in Scotland. Victoria Jones/PA

Rydon, the construction company behind the refurbishment project at Grenfell Tower, said the work "met all required building regulations".

A line included in an earlier press release from the company stating it had met all "fire regulation and health and safety standards" was later dropped.

Contractors Harley Facades Limited (HFL) carried out Grenfell Tower's revamp, which included installing the exterior cladding.

The firm said the aluminium composite panels used for the cladding were a commonly used product.

HFL managing director Ray Bailey said: "At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower."

The chairman of the National Fire Chiefs Council said the recladding of buildings like Grenfell Tower "certainly needs to be reconsidered".

Roy Wilsher told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The most significant thing is the cause and why it spread so quickly and so devastatingly, affecting so many people - that's something we've not seen in our careers ... we've been to many, many fires in our times and we've not seen one like this before."

Announcing the Scottish Government's review of regulations during First Minister's Questions, Nicola Sturgeon said the ministerial group would "ensure that we are standing ready to take any actions necessary as lessons are learned from this catastrophic fire".

She said she did not want to rush to judgment or speculate as to the cause of the fire while the investigation took place but added: "I am acutely aware of the responsibility the Scottish Government bears here.

"We must stand ready to provide whatever reassurance we can to people across Scotland who are living in similar accommodation and who may have very understandable concerns as a result of what we have seen this week."

Scottish Government officials are investigating if any high rise buildings in Scotland are covered in the type of cladding used in the Grenfell Tower.

Local authorities have also been carrying out fire safety checks on high rises in Scotland.

https://stv.tv/news/scotland/1391238-deadly-tower-blaze-prompts-high-rise-fire-safety-checks/ | default

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